Would-Be States Hope To Follow Sudan's Lead

January 20, 2011
Listen to the Story

Talk of the Nation
[16 min 59 sec]

Millions of people in southern Sudan hope to soon become citizens of a new country. The New America Foundation’s Parag Khanna says the world will be more peaceful if other minority groups worldwide realize their own aspirations for statehood.

Copyright © 2011 National Public Radio®. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.


The results from Southern Sudan’s weeklong referendum won’t be announced until next month, but early numbers suggest that, as expected, the largely Christian south will decide to secede from the mostly Muslim north. Will that set a precedent in dozens of other countries where ethnic, language or religious groups yearn for self-rule?

In Foreign Policy, Parag Khanna, a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation, argues that Southern Sudan’s got it right, and that the way to create a peaceful and borderless world is ironically by allowing even more nations to define themselves and their borders.

Well, Kurds, Ibos, Pashtuns, if you’re from a country struggling with issues of autonomy and secession, what’s the best solution? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You could also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Parag Khanna is a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation. His latest book is "How to Run the World: Charting a Course to the Next Renaissance," and he joins us from a studio in Mountain View, California.

Nice to have you with us today.

Mr. PARAG KHANNA (Senior Research Fellow, New America Foundation): Great to be with you. Thanks a lot.

CONAN: And Southern Sudan is an example – a place that has no infrastructure, no government to speak of. It would be landlocked. Its erstwhile countrymen would control its economic lifeline, so breaking up is a good thing to do?

Mr. KHANNA: Well, many countries in this situation start off in that way. Kosovo has also had a very weak infrastructure and been very much a protectorate in a way – an infrastructural protectorate, a bureaucratic one of the European Union, the United States and the United Nations, but it has been slowly getting on its feet. And with the path towards European Union membership, it’s progressed as well.

With South Sudan, we’ll see something similar. Countries – other countries, such as the United States, will join forces to aid South Sudan. Even China has gotten involved because so many – so much of the oil resources are in the south. A new pipeline might be built across Kenya to the Indian Ocean. So gradually, South Sudan could get on its feet in a way that really makes it a resilient independent country.

CONAN: And yet, the conventional wisdom throughout Africa and much of Asia, as well, but specifically in Africa, is that the only thing wrong with the borders that were largely written by colonial bureaucrats with very little or no regard to where people actually lived was that the only thing worse than those borders was to change them.

Mr. KHANNA: That’s exactly right. There is this cliche that everyone wants to change the borders except their own, but everyone does recognize, as you pointed out, that the borders from the Congress of Berlin of 1885 are largely legitimate. But what’s more important than that is what’s happened since independence, in the post-colonial eras.

Since the 1950s and ’60s, there’s been what I call post-colonial entropy, and that is the gradual decay of these states because of overpopulation, the lack of adequate equality in the political systems and the marginalization of minorities, corrupt governance. All of these phenomenon have really taken hold – the decay of public infrastructure. And then, of course, genocidal campaigns such as what you’ve had in Sudan against the people of Darfur. So it’s hard to imagine a number of these states staying together.

Sudan, Congo, the two largest countries in Africa, are, you know, a quarter or a third the size of the United States. They’re really unmanageable territories, and I think that these smaller-sized units will be better off in the long run.

CONAN: But convincing the central governments of those places that smaller countries – a number of smaller countries would be a better option is sometimes not easy.

Mr. KHANNA: And it’s taken a lot of effort, and the United States government deserves a lot of credit over the last several years for working with the European Union and the African Union to pressure the government of Omar Bashir of Sudan to accept the results of this referendum and to allow this independence to take place.

Naturally, there – we have a visceral reaction, fear of new countries being born and the civil wars and violence that could accompany that. But this episode really demonstrates that it can be done largely peacefully and in a way that is – that involves many members of the international community.

CONAN: Can be – it’s also interesting that China which, of course, opposed the separation of Kosovo was then, well, much in favor of the separation of South Sudan – against it in the former Yugoslavia because it set an example for, it feared, its own restive peoples, primarily the Tibetans, but in favor of it in Southern Sudan.

Mr. KHANNA: Right. And so it shows how, with smart diplomacy, the U.S. brought China around by helping to negotiate with the South Sudanese authorities that their oil contracts would be respected, and that was really the key issue for China. And so, as you can see with each and every conflict, there is a win-win that – where you can bring around China, Russia or other players.

The key thing is to realize, though, that really what happens in South Sudan is not a precedent for Tibet. And what happened in Kosovo is not a precedent for Chechnya. These are very unique situations in each part of the world, whether it’s East Timor or Kosovo or South Sudan or Kurdistan or Palestine. And they really have unique historical circumstances and origins and geographies and that we really shouldn’t be holding hostage the independence of South Sudan because of Chinese concerns over Tibet.

CONAN: Well, if South Sudan, why not Tibet? If South Sudan, why not Chechnya?

Mr. KHANNA: Well, again, these all have their own unique circumstances. There are many questions we have to ask, which is, first of all, do they have the capacity to be independent? Do they even have the option to be independent? This kind of referendum is not being offered in Tibet. It’s not being offered in Chechnya. These are both places where a tremendous amount of political repression is still under way.

But the opportunity exists for Kurdistan. The opportunity exists for Palestine. In fact, both of those territories are gradually moving in that direction in ways that are largely peaceful. They’re focusing on building their infrastructure, building their economies. They have centuries-long grievances. The Kurds, for example, have been struggling for independence for 3,000 years, and they’re very close to achieving it.

CONAN: They have a large degree of autonomy in Iraq, correct? But there are also large numbers of Kurds in Iran and even more in Turkey and southern Syria as well.

Mr. KHANNA: That’s exactly right. But an independent Kurdistan state would largely be confined to the political borders of northern Iraq. So even though there are minority populations of Kurds in the neighboring countries, there could still be an independent Kurdistan state, which might draw back some of the Kurds from other countries, but they, too, have their differences linguistically and otherwise and might choose to be – remain in the countries where they are.

The rights of Kurds in Turkey, for example, have improved quite drastically in the last decade or more. And so just because there would be an independent Kurdistan state, it doesn’t mean that necessarily all Kurds would leave Turkey or that it would strengthen calls for a greater autonomous Kurdistan, which is (unintelligible).

CONAN: Greater Kurdistan, yeah. Yeah.

Mr. KHANNA: Right. And I think when – if those expectations are managed, again, that that is another situation that can be managed peacefully.

CONAN: Let’s go – 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And we’ll start with Savash(ph), Savash with us from Palo Alto in California.

SAVASH (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi. You’re on the air. Go ahead, please.

SAVASH: Yes. I was going to ask about the same question, why not, for example, Uyghurs in China or Chechnya in Russia, but your speaker kind of answered that. But I have a hard time really buying this answer. It seems like this is just a part of a general strategy of divide and conquer on the side of the Western powers. And, you know, smaller Kurdistan and maybe a Shiite, you know, country in Iraq is much better than a larger united Iraq to, you know, exploit their resources. That’s my feeling on the topic, and thank you.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much for the call.

Mr. KHANNA: If I may, the – you know, the issue here is self-determination and whether or not it is possible in any given situation. The Palestinians are at the point where not only are they choosing to move in the direction of self-determination and having increasing support for that from countries around the world. One of the last things that President Lula of Brazil did before leaving office at the end of last year was to recognize the Palestinian state and Palestinian passports.

The number of countries that recognize your impending independence is a very important factor. There is no independent Tibetan passport that’s being issued, unfortunately, for them. But the Palestinians have them and the Kosovars have had them. And when you reach 100 or more countries of the 200 or so in the world that will recognize your citizens’ right to travel abroad, that becomes a very important determining factor in whether or not you can actually sustain your own independence.

CONAN: And then you get a situation like northern Cypress, which continues to poison relationships between Turkey and Greece, two members of NATO.

Mr. KHANNA: It’s a very good example that you raise with northern Cypress because it’s actually a very good example of how the European Union failed to use its leverage over its members or candidate countries to help to resolve a decade’s old dispute, because it allowed Cypress to become a member without having first resolved the border conflict between Greece and Turkey over the status of the north.

What you should’ve done is to make that membership of Cypress contingent on resolving that situation, which is, typically, what the E.U. has done with other countries. So, unfortunately, they dropped the ball in terms of an opportunity to really lead in resolving a very old territorial dispute within Europe.

CONAN: And let’s see if we can get another caller in on the conversation. Let’s go to Adama(ph), Adama with us from Columbus.

ADAMA (Caller): Yeah. Hello, Neal. This is Adama in Columbus. I’m from Mauritania, so I’m just trying to raise this issue regarding the black Africans who live in Mauritania. We have been suffering 1986, and the system has crashed us – from 1986 to 1991. And we still have slavery in there, and the only way we believe that we can have our freedom is by having our own country. So nobody is talking about them.

(Unintelligible) that happened many, many years. A lot of people have been killed, close to 3,000 people. They crashed all the military offices, all the military black offices in the army. And now we are just like nothing in that country. The only solution is to have a secession from Arab people.

CONAN: Would – would a situation of autonomy work, do you think, Adama?

ADAMA: Of course, it would. Of course. If it doesn’t work, the solution could be found. You will never know until you try it.

CONAN: All right.

ADAMA: And you will find a solution.

CONAN: Parag Khanna?

Mr. KHANNA: Autonomy is a very important, if not solution, then an intermediate step that helps to allow parties and sides to determine whether or not they can live together in that state. And, of course, it really does come down to the amount – to the degree.

There’s similar situation, you know, as the speaker, the caller just described, Western Sahara, where they’re pushing for greater autonomy and, potentially, independence because of the suffering that has been imposed by the Moroccan government. So this is, you know, there are a number of such situations around the world where autonomy really would be a favorable approach because it helps separate parties, or at least protect vulnerable populations that are being oppressed.

To some degree, that’s exactly what the South Sudan story is about. It’s just that this instance, it’s moving much closer towards formal independence. But ultimately, that could very well happen in other situations as well.

CONAN: Adama, thanks very much for the phone call. We’re talking about redrawing the borders. You’re listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And it’s interesting, there’s a piece on a about this idea by Emmanuel Wallerstein published in Middle East Online in which he points out, and I think it’s probably correct, that there is no newly independent entity that would not automatically have a restive minority of its own. How far do you atomize?

Mr. KHANNA: It’s true that there could be this, you know, tendency towards reductionism. But I think that, again, these universalistic kinds of statements, such as he’s making, really need to be taken in the case-by-case context. There are still Serb minorities in Kosovo, for example. They’re not splintering off and creating a sub-Serb entity within Kosovo, which is near but not part of Serbia. So we don’t want to take it too far.

But the question is if that new state yes, of course almost all states will have minorities. That doesn’t mean that each minority continues to split off. Minorities can live in peace within these smaller states as well. There’s no reason to believe that they are necessarily being violently oppressed, which is the main motivation for the independence of that new state in the first place. That’s the real question here is to what extent is a minority population being so oppressed and subjugated that it really does need to split off and be on its own.

And let’s bear in mind, when we’re talking about redrawing borders. We’re not talking about America stepping in and playing the role of a 19th century European power and just arbitrarily drawing borders. The purpose here, and what was so important in the South Sudan case, is that the African Union has played a very important role here. This is Africans solving African problems. And the U.S. and others are supporting from behind. This is not about a new colonialism and being a sort of imperial power at all.

CONAN: Let’s go next to Erin(ph), Erin with us from Davis in California.

ERIN (Caller): Yeah, hi. Thanks for having me on.

CONAN: Sure. Go ahead, please.

ERIN: I want to make a comment about I’ve been walking in the Balkans for a number of years, at all sides from Croats, Serbs, Kosovo, Albanians. But I find that I’m a little concerned about the independence of Kosovo and the role that America has played in the declaring independence of Kosovo. One thing I would say, that they don’t have the financial means. It’s going to be extremely costly to implement their independence. Who’s going to pay for it?

And (unintelligible) tension between (unintelligible) really stepped in because it’s sort of a political interest for us, you know, mainly probably because of oil pipelines coming through from the Caspian regions. And so I’m just very concerned about that whole geographic makeup over there and our role in kind of enforcing independence in Kosovo, although I do support the Kosovo Albanians all the way.

CONAN: All right. Erin, thank you.

Mr. KHANNA: What’s very important to realize about the Balkan situation is that now that many of the countries have stabilized in their independence. So Croatia, for example, is a candidate country for membership in the European Union, the Serbian parliament has agreed to move towards stabilization and association agreement and SAA with the European Union.

So the purpose of resolving these disputes and spinning off, if you will, the new countries that have resulted from the fragmentation of the former Yugoslavia is that that they become contentious, factional, fighting neighbors. It’s that they all become stable in their borders and grow economically and reform politically and eventually become members in the European Union and have their own currency, as Slovenia has done, as Croatia is about to do and so on down the line.

Eventually, all of these Balkan countries will actually be members of the European Union. They will be part of a greater supernational entity much more so than they will be just small, weak, poor, squabbling neighbors. So we have to think in terms of this grander vision. And Europe sets the best example for that. And you know, you can write the same…

CONAN: Well, even the poorest part of Europe is a very different situation than the horn of Africa, where Eritrea and Ethiopia continue to be at each other’s throats, and a very different situation from South Asia, where the Pashtuns and the Baluks and the any number of other peoples, the sikhs, all want their separate states.

Mr. KHANNA: Absolutely. But their capacity to have independence, the willingness of the sort of host country, if you will, to allow it and the international recognition and support that they have – these are all very important factors. I’m not denying that geopolitics and great power schemes play an important role in this. And they certainly do. This is not necessarily a fair world. But self-determination of oppressed minorities is certainly one principle that if we can get great powers to agree on in these peripheral contexts, if nothing else, will make these peoples better off.

I wanted to just, you know, comment on what the previous caller have said about how, you know, Kosovo is so weak and dependent on outside support, such as that from the EU. One would say the same thing about Palestine. Does that mean that they can’t become independent? So much of their budget comes from the European Union, United Nations, the U.S. But of course, if we invest in their infrastructure, as we very much could be doing, by allowing the West Bank and Gaza to be united through an infrastructure corridor to give them an airport and a seaport on the Mediterranean, they could have a viable economy. They could be a very functional independent state.

CONAN: Parag Khanna, thank you very much for your time today. Appreciate it.

Mr. KHANNA: Thank you.

CONAN: Parag Khanna, a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation, with us today from a studio in Mountain View, California. His latest book is called "How to Run the World: Charting a Course to the Next Renaissance." You can find a link to his foreign policy piece, which is adapted from his book at our website. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.